Saratoga Springs

Thirty years later, Easy Goer’s Travers still a thrill

In the absence of his top rival, Sunday Silence, Shug McGaughey's colt put on a show by himself
Travers contender Code of Honor keeps an eye on things from the grazing area at trainer Shug McGaughey's barn.
Travers contender Code of Honor keeps an eye on things from the grazing area at trainer Shug McGaughey's barn.

Categories: Sports

SARATOGA SPRINGS — Shug McGaughey is 68 years old, was inducted into the National Racing Hall of Fame 16 years ago, and still calls the late Charlie Whittingham, who died at the age of 86 in 1999, “Mr. Whittingham.”

That traces back to 30 years ago, when their respective horses engaged in a rivalry that didn’t quite rise to the level of Affirmed-Alydar, but was still captivating on a national scale.

In any given year, the Travers Stakes at Saratoga Race Course conjures memories and nostalgia among racing fans. That’s what happens when a race has been around since 1864 and has provided Saratoga with some of its best moments.

The needle on the Nostalg-O-Meter goes to 11 this year, because Saturday’s big race is the 150th running. Don’t bother with the 2019-minus-1864 math — the Travers wasn’t held on a few occasions because enough New York politicians had a problem with gambling to force the sport to shut down. Imagine that.

More from Travers Stakes:

Did I mention Affirmed-Alydar? They went 1-2 in the 1978 Travers, and Alydar was given the victory by disqualification. Alydar eventually sired a strapping chestnut colt with Triple Crown aspirations and a Travers moment of his own. We’ll get to him shortly.

Having reminisced about the Travers at various times in this space over the years since I covered my first one in 1987, I’m staying in my 1989 Memory Lane for this one. Three decades seems like a tidy number, Shug has a really good horse in this year’s race, and the one he saddled in the 1989 Travers represents the first horse who knocked my socks off in person with the kind of performance that sticks in your head for a long time.

That was Easy Goer, inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1997, largely because of his incredible work at Belmont Park, where he stopped the Whittingham-trained Sunday’s Silence’s Triple Crown bid, but also with a dominating Travers victory to his credit while carrying the familiar black silks and cherry cap of the Phipps Stable.

Easy Goer gilded the lily at Saratoga that day by turning his head to the grandstand at the very moment that he took unyielding command of the race, just outside the eighth pole. He continued to look in that direction, and it was easy for those who anthropomorphize animals to believe he had just won the NBA Slam Dunk contest.

Under a hand ride from Pat Day, Easy Goer finally pointed his nose back toward the finish line at the sixteenth pole and beat the gutsy front-runner Clever Trevor by three lengths. I got a little chill up my back watching it on YouTube Friday, because Easy Goer turned to gawk at the crowd just as announcer Dave Johnson hollered “Easy Goer roars up and takes the lead!”

Shug McGaughey has many of his own memories of the Mid-Summer Derby, having saddled 13 Travers horses.

“The first time I ran it, I finished second [with Pine Circle in 1984] and might’ve been the best that day,” he said Thursday. “We were making a run, and a horse called Track Barron was in front of him, he was following him and he stopped and we had to check. That gave Carr De Naskra the jump, and he won.

“Then we came back and ran Personal Flag. He had a hard trip, finished third. Then I had a horse called Polish Navy, and he was in front the whole way in the slop, and a horse of Mack Miller’s [Java Gold] won that loved an off track.

“Then we got the win when we came with Easy Goer, which I was really glad to win, because I thought maybe I got cheated out of a couple of them.”

Sunday Silence didn’t run in the 1989 Travers, and in fact the California-based Whittingham, who was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 1974, only saddled one Travers horse in a career spanning almost 50 years. That was Temperate Sil, the eighth-place finisher in Java Gold’s 1987 win.

In 1989, if you knew Easy Goer, you knew Sunday Silence. He beat Easy Goer in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness in a classic stretch-long duel at Pimlico, but Easy Goer turned the tables by a whopping eighth lengths in the Belmont.

“Yeah, 1989 was a lot of fun,” McGaughey said. “And the reason it was a lot of fun was because I was a young guy, and Mr. Whittingham was the old professional, and he was so great about the whole thing. He made it fun.

More from Travers Stakes:

“The Derby, I was disappointed, but I felt like the track compromised him and helped Sunday Silence. We came back and got beat that far in the Preakness,” he said, holding his fingers an inch apart, “so I knew then that we were equal to him. And then to come to the Belmont, we came out of the Preakness great, we got to the Belmont and he was doing really well. I thought that we had a big chance to win. He loved that big track with the big turns.”

After the Travers, Easy Goer continued to dominate in New York, while Sunday Silence won the Super Derby in Louisiana.

They met one more time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park, and although Easy Goer closed like a freight train, he came up a neck short of Sunday Silence.

Sunday Silence was inducted to the Hall of Fame in 1996, again beating Easy Goer by a neck.

McGaughey won the Travers for the second year in a row in 1990 with Rhythm, one of only six occasions in which a trainer has won back-to-back since Kentucky won the first Travers for co-owner William Travers in 1864. He also won it in 1998 with Coronado’s Quest, and “really haven’t had a lot of opportunities since then, so I’m really looking forward to having this one and run him on Saturday.”

There aren’t many similarities between Easy Goer and Code of Honor, McGaughey’s horse in Saturday’s race. Easy Goer was a big beast who was tabbed as a Triple Crown prospect as early as his championship 2-year-old season. He didn’t accomplish that, but did make it to the Hall of Fame. Code of Honor is a little guy still trying to assemble some consistency to his racing career.

But Easy Goer broke his maiden on Aug. 19, 1988, and Code of Honor did the same on Aug. 18, 2018. They’re both chestnuts, and Code of Honor likes to come from the behind, like Easy Goer used to do much of the time.

So my 2019 Travers superfecta, bottom to top, will be Tax, Tacitus, Highest Honors and Code of Honor.

For old time’s sake.

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

Leave a Reply